Street Stroll: Fit for a prime minister

Originally called Keren Kayemet Leyisrael Boulevard and now named for the first premier, this street has a long and illustrious history.

Ben Gurion Blvd memorial 311 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Ben Gurion Blvd memorial 311
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
For over four decades, David Ben-Gurion lived on and off in a modest house on Keren Kayemet Leyisrael Boulevard in Tel Aviv. In the morning, he could walk out of his little dwelling, look to the right, and enjoy a wonderful view of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Two years after he died, an architectural and commercial disaster called Atarim Square was built on the beach that would have completely blocked his view.
Nevertheless, this week’s Street Stroll begins atop that very plaza, for it marks the western end of David Ben-Gurion Boulevard. Originally named for the Jewish National Fund, which owned the land in the area, the boulevard now carries the name of its most famous resident.
A wonderfully pleasant jaunt passes through a lovely park dedicated to Righteous Gentiles (people who saved Jews during the Holocaust) and ends at the world-famous memorial to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Atarim Square was built over a variety of little huts from the Mahlul neighborhood (in Arabic, mahlul means “land without owners”). The neighborhood was established by the British in 1921, for Jews who had fled the Arab massacres in Jaffa as well as immigrants arriving after World War I. Living conditions were pretty awful, for huts were often made of wood thrown up on the beach, while roofs were sketchy, to say the least. As a result, of course, residents suffered greatly from the sea’s strong winds, and from terrible flooding during winter storms.
Descend the walkway from Atarim Square directly onto Ben-Gurion Boulevard to begin your walk. In the early 1930s, working stiffs couldn’t afford to buy houses. So the JNF and labor unions got together and erected houses called meonot ovdim (workers’ houses for clerks and such) and meonot poalim (homes for manual laborers).
Laborers resided in houses with a garden in front, where they could grow fruits and vegetables; clerks and other minor officials ended up in apartment complexes surrounding a garden and, generally, a grocery store and nursery school. Mortgages were extremely low, and they were thus able to buy their own dwelling. Along KKL Boulevard, workers lived on the southern side of the street, and laborers on the left.
In the years following its establishment in 1909, Tel Aviv developed at such a rapid pace that even its founders were astonished. Worried that the city had no overall concept, mayor Meir Dizengoff hired Scottish urban designer Sir Patrick Geddes to make order out of the chaos. Geddes’s plan included garden neighborhoods, main arteries running north to south (Hayarkon, Dizengoff and Ben-Yehuda streets) and wide streets stretching from west to east. One of these was KKL Boulevard, along which you should now be walking east.
On your stroll, you will pass charming seating arrangements and a large black and gray sculpture that – to me at least – resembles a giant ear. Then pop into the house at No. 17, one of the few original meonot poalim to remain on the block. Most of the others here date back to the Fifth Aliya, which consisted mainly of German Jews fleeing Hitler in the 1930s, and were built in Bauhaus, or International, style. These were homes and apartment buildings that were purely functional, and featured clean lines, balconies whose floors served as roofs for the balcony immediately beneath, a vertical series of windows to provide light on the stairwells, and flat tops for hanging laundry and having get-togethers.
Ben-Gurion’s home, at No. 17, was different.
As you can see on your visit, it was very simple – for our first prime minister always considered himself to be one of the people, a humble laborer.
Not surprisingly, he and his wife, Paula, left their modest home to the State of Israel, and it has been beautifully restored, with everything remaining exactly as it was. Indeed, breakfast has even been laid out! Continue walking as far as Ben-Yehuda Street, to the boulevard’s first kiosk. You will find that the once plain kiosks that sold sandwiches and hot dogs are now charming coffee shops and healthy juice enterprises.
The building just before the intersection, at No. 20, dates back to the Thirties and is an interesting mix of Bauhaus and other influences. Paule Rackower, our guide on this fascinating boulevard tour, notes that Tel Aviv is internationally recognized for its Bauhaus architecture, yet few of the houses are pure Bauhaus. Indeed, their architects studied in such a variety of European countries, and adapted to Middle Eastern requirements as well, that they almost all combine several different styles.
FOLIAGE ON the boulevard is a jumble as well. Here you will find sycamore, olive, ficus and tamarisk trees – as well as a few little touches left over from the recent tent cities set up here to protest the country’s housing problems.
Cross Ben-Yehuda Street to view the Yarden Suites on your left at No. 27.
Once a very elegant hotel in the north of Tel Aviv (even then, north Tel Aviv was the prestigious part of the city, says Rackower), it eventually ended up in the hands of Bank Leumi. Just as it did in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, here, too, the bank destroyed the building’s original look. Fortunately, after UNESCO bestowed its protection on Tel Aviv, it has been restored, and now serves as an apartment hotel for shortterm leases.
On the other side of Ben-Yehuda Street, the attractive building at No. 22 is now the Buscape Café. Until a few years ago, however, it hosted a wellknown pick-up bar called Paula’s.
Further along the boulevard, the first set of colorful playground equipment appears. Then take a look at No. 31, whose palm trees add charm to the original Bauhaus design. Across the boulevard at No. 28, “Tzafrir” is written next to drawings that decorate the façade of an otherwise rather drab apartment building.
On your left, after you cross Graetz Street, the 1930s edifice at No. 39 features a Bauhaus long vertical window that stretches around and below the roof. Imagine how beautiful it would look restored. Near the end of this portion of the boulevard, Tamara’s boasts colorful fruit displays – and provides water for thirsty dogs. As you cross Dizengoff Street you get a good look at a little hut made beautiful by Rami Meir, the Tel Aviv artist whose paintings on exterior walls have brightened up the city.
No. 42, on your right, was once the famous New York Coffee Shop owned by Rafael Halperin. The Austrian-born Halperin, who immigrated to Israel as a young boy, became a pro wrestler and expert in the martial arts. According to an Internet site, his ring name was “Mr.
After fighting and winning competitions in the United States he returned to Israel and became religious. He was passionate about Shabbat observance and constantly thought of new ways it could be increased in Israel. He even introduced a Shabbat-observant credit card. Although Halperin was a successful businessman – he was the owner of the Optica Halperin chain of opticians – he also published religious books.
Among them was a well-researched genealogy of great rabbis, whose graphics were the work of our guide.
Now take a good look at two connected houses – numbers 51 and 53.
Fifty-three is desperately in need of an overhaul. But the one-story laborer’s home at No. 51 was replaced, fairly recently, with a multi-storied, very attractive edifice. You can’t miss bright green bicycles filling racks on the boulevard, called Tel-O-Fun and rent free for the first 30 minutes of your ride. The municipality adopted the racks’ attractive design from bike racks used at Tel Aviv University.
You are now approaching Reines Street. Take a look at the one-story house just before the corner, at No. 75.
This is Beit Hannah, named for Hannah Chisik, who established a training farm for young women here in 1926. The house itself, which served as a shop for the farm’s produce, was built in 1935 by Jacob Pinkerfeld, one of four architects killed by Arab terrorists on September 23, 1956, during a visit to Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. In accordance with Tel Aviv bylaws, in order to build the tall structure behind Beit Hannah, contractors restored the original edifice in the 1990s. It soon became a popular Apropo coffee shop.
On March 21, 1997, terrorists launched an attack on the coffee shop in which three women – one of them pregnant – were murdered. The memorial in front of you is shaped vaguely like a woman’s body, or perhaps a tree with leaves on top and bottom, and nothing in the middle.
CROSS REINES Street to see several restored structures. On your left, the Bauhaus structure at No. 77 is quite striking. To our right, numbers 64 and 66 are connected. Pass through the gate to see original workers’ houses from the 1930s, in a complex surrounding a large garden.
At the junction with Spinoza Street, look to the right to see a mass of tiny windows at No. 68 Ben-Gurion Boulevard. Follow the building around to see even more. This ugly edifice houses Tel Aviv’s Engineering Department and is a block long. It was built in an era of socialist thought, when a lack of decoration and minimalistic design were in fashion.
When you reach a main intersection, Shlomo Hamelech Street, move into a lovely park dedicated to the memory of the Righteous Gentiles. With its little waterfalls and quiet corners, this is a wonderful, peaceful place.
Hard to believe that at one time this was the site of Tel Aviv’s first and only zoo. The zoo originated in a pet store on Sheinkin Street, whose residents complained loudly about the noise and smell. Eventually, the municipality moved the shop to Hayarkon Street, where the owner opened an actual zoo, with lions. In 1940, the zoo relocated to this site. I remember it from the 1970s, and a pretty sad sight it was. Fortunately for the animals, the zoo closed after the Ramat Gan Safari opened in 1980.
The area around the zoo belonged to an Arab village called Sumail. In the 1890s, an American who dreamed of owning a farm in the Holy Land bought a field from the Arabs. The village was far from the heart of the new Hebrew City of Tel Aviv, and after he died of heat stroke everyone assumed his widow and children would leave.
Instead, and with hired help from among the villagers, the widow ran the farm. Indeed, the village sheikh declared that if anyone harmed the woman they would have him to deal with. Even when buildings began going up here in the 1930s, the widow continued working in the field. Then one day her children told her they had sold the place and were moving her out. She was found dead in her bed the next day.
Patrick Geddes had planned the city’s municipal building about where the Mann Auditorium stands today. But instead, the city operated inside a hotel on Bialik Street, and in the 1960s constructed the current municipality. The adjoining plaza was called Malchei Yisrael Square, and became a popular site for folk dancing. It also hosted the Hebrew Book Fair and Youth Movement ceremonies. The name was changed to Rabin Square in 1995, soon after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated nearby.
Walk through the park, then descend to street level for a look at the simple monument to Rabin. The memorial is made of basalt stone from the Golan Heights, very much like the stone atop his grave on Mount Herzl.
Ben-Gurion House; Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – 8 a.m to 3 p.m., Monday – 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday – 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Free.

A special thanks to guide Paule Rakower, who can be reached at (03) 546-4917, and by e-mail at